Matthews, Perry ease pass-rush concerns

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - Going into the Minnesota game Saturday, the Green Bay Packers had no idea how many snaps they would get out of their two best pass rushers or whether either would be effective.

Luckily for them, Clay Matthews played 55 snaps and resembled the guy opposing teams used to fear more than anyone on the Packers’ defense, and Nick Perry took part in 35 and added two sacks to his club-leading total of eight.

Neither player was 100 percent, but for the first time since mid-October, the two were on the field together functioning at an above-average level. No one could have predicted that, not with the stat-less game Matthews had in Chicago the week before and a club the size of a cement footing on Perry’s hand.

“When you’re preparing and practicing and you aren’t quite sure where guys are going to be health-wise, you’ve got to prepare for all the alternatives,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday. “You’ve seen the limited number of reps that Clay’s gotten up to this time; we’ve increased it.

“Nick, we weren’t sure how Nick would do with the club, but he had a good day in practice out there so we had that to work off of. But coming out of this game, I feel better about both those guys.”

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Matthews is now four weeks removed from separating his right shoulder and 13 weeks removed from pulling his left hamstring. The sack, fumble forced, two quarterback hits and two passes batted down were evidence that Matthews is ready for a bigger assignment than just rushing on third downs.

Over the past couple of weeks, coach Mike McCarthy decided it was fruitless to design all the usual pass-rush variations for Matthews when he wasn’t able to practice them all and definitely wouldn’t be on the field enough to run them all.

“If he’s going to play, let’s make sure we’re repping him where he’s going to play and make sure we’re getting other players repped where they’re going to play,” McCarthy said. “As opposed to the earlier weeks, we tried to play them at two positions, maybe three, and then by the end of the first quarter he’s just playing the one.

“So it’s just really trying to get the reps right during the course of the week. And it’s not an exact science.”

But Matthews’ 55-snap game Saturday changes things.

Now Capers can start moving him around, sending him on stunts, dropping him into coverage and playing him on run downs. All Matthews really could do since separating his shoulder Nov. 28 against Philadelphia was rush the passer one-armed.

Against the Vikings, he had more sacks (one), quarterback hits (three) and passes defensed (two) than he had in his previous three games combined. In three of those five games, he didn’t register a defensive stat of any kind.

“Hopefully, he’ll be able to move forward going into this week because like we talked about, we went a couple of weeks there saying, ‘Is it worth it?’ ” Capers said of playing Matthews with the shoulder injury. “Well, Clay’s that guy that, you know, (can make) those one, two or three (game-changing) plays.

“I can give you three of them right now — those two batted passes and that sack fumble — those change the course of the game.”

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Predicting Perry was going to have two sacks and play the run as well as he did would have been foolish given he was playing with no grip on his left hand. The best he could do in the run game was try to stick the club in a lineman’s chest and move him backward.

“I wish I could have my hands, because I can do a lot more with that,” Perry said after the game. “But I just try to do what I can with what I have. Having to have a cast on there doesn’t make it better, but throughout the week I tried to find ways to make sure I was playing my part in the game.”

When he got hurt, Perry was having his best season. Besides a career high in sacks, he was a big reason the Packers were ranked high in run defense. But his play always was better when Matthews was in the lineup and that proved to be the case against the Vikings.

The two were not on the field together when the Packers last played the Detroit Lions, their Sunday night opponent in a winner-take-all season finale for the NFC North title. Perry had eight unassisted tackles, two sacks and a pass defensed in that game, and Capers couldn’t have been happier with what he saw as a prelude to the rematch.

“I thought that really the club didn’t affect him that much,” Capers said. “Nick’s not only a good rusher, which you saw that show up, but he affects our run defense because he’s such a stout guy playing the run. So he’s a good starter.”

Having Matthews and Perry at 80 percent is better than having Julius Peppers and Datone Jones at 100 percent. There’s a reason Matthews and Perry are the starters and considered vital parts of the defense.

When Peppers and Jones are used as complements, they’re playing their proper roles. Capers would appear to have the ability now to start designing the pass rush around Matthews, Perry and Mike Daniels in order to get maximum output.

Given the uneven play of his secondary, the sure recipe for success at Ford Field will be to put constant pressure on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford. Capers has to find a way to get the most out of his two injured outside linebackers in an environment that favors the Lions' offense.

“The only thing that you have to go off of is what we have from yesterday,” Capers said. “Assuming they both come out of the game healthy and hopefully now we’ve got a full week to prepare, based off what we saw yesterday, I’m feeling like we can move forward with those two guys.”

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